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How sugar turned bitter for Nestle: Baby food sugar controversy explained

Nestle's baby food products in several countries, including India, contain high levels of added sugar and honey, said a report by Public Eye, a Swiss investigative organisation


A report by Public Eye says that in India, all 15 Cerelac baby products by Nestle contain an average of nearly 3 grams of sugar per serving

Nandini Singh New Delhi
A recent report by Swiss NGO Public Eye and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) has stirred controversy. It revealed stark differences in the sugar content of Nestle's baby products across various nations. 

The investigation, which scrutinised around 150 baby products from different countries, alleged that Nestle's products in South Asian (including India), African, and Latin American markets contain significantly higher sugar levels than those in Europe.

The report, published by The Guardian, highlighted findings from a Belgian laboratory that tested the samples, indicating that the sugar content exceeded international food safety guidelines.

Of particular concern is Nestle's wheat-based product, Cerelac, designed for six-month-old babies. While Cerelac, sold in the UK and Germany, boasts no added sugars, its counterpart in India contained 2.7 grams of added sugar per serving. Shockingly, the sugar content soared to 6 grams in Thailand, the highest among the products tested.

In India alone, 15 Cerelac products were analysed, averaging 2.7 grams of added sugar per serving. Although the sugar content was declared on the packaging in India, the report revealed a glaring oversight in the Philippines, where five out of eight samples contained a staggering 7.3 grams of sugar per serving, with no mention of it on the packaging.

Responding to the allegations, a spokesperson from Nestle India said, "We believe in the nutritional quality of our products for early childhood and prioritise using high-quality ingredients. Over the past five years, Nestlé India has reduced added sugars by up to 30 per cent, depending on the variant, in our infant cereals portfolio [milk cereal based complementary food]. We regularly review our portfolio and continue to innovate and reformulate our products to further reduce the level of added sugars without compromising on quality, safety and taste."

However, Dr Arun Gupta from the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), the report's India partner, argued, "When you add sugars to baby formula food, babies are much more likely to drink it up because of the pleasing taste. With happy parents purchasing the products, it boosts the bottom line of companies. And they can get by because the regulations are weak."

What are added sugars?

Added sugars are sweetening agents, like syrups, added to processed foods and beverages. They're considered more harmful than the naturally occurring sugars in fruits and milk.

Why is this concerning?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises against introducing added sugars before age two. Doing so can lead to addictive eating habits and a preference for sweet tastes from an early age. 

Excessive sugar intake can also cause weight gain and obesity and increase the risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers later in life.

"High sugar consumption in infancy is also linked to an increased risk of dental caries [tooth decay] and poor nutrient intake, as sugary foods often replace more nutritious options in a child's diet," Dr Richa Chaturvedi, senior consultant in endocrinology at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi, told The Indian Express.

Nestle controversy: How much sugar is too much?

In 2015, the WHO urged nations to limit free sugar intake in both children and adults to 10 per cent of their total energy intake. Additionally, it suggested reducing this limit further to five per cent or 25 grams per day. This recommendation excludes natural sugars found in fruits and milk, focusing instead on hidden sugars present in processed foods.

What are the guidelines in India?

Indian regulations governing infant nutrition standards do not specify an upper limit for added sugars. Instead, they outline requirements for various macronutrients such as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as essential micronutrients like Vitamin C, D, Iron, and zinc.

These regulations permit the use of corn syrup and malt in cereal-based infant food. They also allow sucrose and fructose to be used as carbohydrate sources, provided they constitute less than 20 per cent of the total carbohydrates in the food.

Nestle's previous controversies

Unhealthy food portfolio

In 2021, Nestle encountered criticism following the disclosure of an internal presentation indicating that a substantial portion of its mainstream food and beverage offerings did not meet established health standards. Nestle acknowledged that 60 per cent of its food and drinks portfolio, excluding pet food, baby formula, and coffee, fell short of health benchmarks.

Nestle committed to revising its nutrition and health approach and evaluating its entire product range to adhere to nutritional standards. The company asserted that it had decreased sodium and sugar levels in its products by at least 14-15 per cent over the previous seven years.

Maggi noodles ban

One of Nestle India's most infamous controversies arose from the 2015 ban on its popular Maggi noodles. The ban was prompted by the discovery of excessive levels of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG). As a result, around 38,000 tonnes of Maggi noodles were withdrawn and destroyed, significantly affecting Nestle India's market share and revenue.

This ban was enforced after a food inspector's discovery of discrepancies in Maggi's labelling assertions in Uttar Pradesh, with subsequent laboratory analyses confirming the presence of MSG and lead. The episode precipitated a nationwide product recall and regulatory interventions by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

Nestle's past allegations of discouraging breastfeeding

In 1977, Nestle faced criticism in the United States (US) for allegedly discouraging breastfeeding to promote its baby formula. This led to a boycott of Nestle products in the US and Europe, which lasted till 1984 when Nestle agreed to adhere to an international marketing code endorsed by the WHO.

Allegation of child labour

In 2021, Nestle faced legal challenges over allegations of child labour in cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, reported 

Former alleged child slaves sued the company, but a US District Court dismissed the case in 2022 due to a lack of evidence linking Nestle to specific plantations.

Environmental concerns around Nestle's practices

Nestle's packaging practices have also raised environmental concerns, with critics questioning the company's approach to plastic waste management. Despite pledging to design over 95 per cent of its plastic packaging for recycling by 2025, allegations have arisen regarding the incineration of plastic waste, contributing to environmental pollution.

Additionally, accusations of groundwater exploitation also emerged in Pakistan, where Nestle's operations allegedly contributed to sinking water levels and contamination. Forensic audits submitted to the Pakistan Supreme Court revealed water wastage, prompting scrutiny over Nestle's water management practices.

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First Published: Apr 18 2024 | 6:23 PM IST

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